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Eating in the Old Pueblo
Issue 27: Greetings from Tucson.
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I’ve been in Tucson for the past week on a post-isolation trip to see my parents and whenever I am in town, I always try and hit my favorite restaurants. This trip, I’ve tried a lot of new-to-me places and thought it a good time to revisit an article I wrote in 2017 about Tucson’s unique culinary tradition.
Tucson, Arizona is a small-ish town not much more than an hour north of the US border with Mexico, and for a long time, it had felt like a place with an unvaried and largely not-that-exciting culinary tradition. Until recently, Tucson wasn't considered a major food destination, but then in 2015 something amazing and unexpected happened: Tucson was the only US city to be named a World City of Gastronomy by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). I lived in Tucson for ten years as a kid - and still spend a good amount of time here - and I thought this designation confusing and undeserved.
I thought I knew what made up Tucson’s unique southwestern cuisine, but after the UNESCO designation, I realized that I had a hard time describing what exactly it entails to uninitiated outsiders. Chilies, beans, and grilled meats make a lot of appearances, but those are also key ingredients of Mexican food. There's also a lot of use of native ingredients like tepary beans and cholla buds, as well as a long-established wheat growing tradition. So what exactly is southwestern food?
To get a better sense of southwestern cuisine and why Tucson was awarded this designation requires an understanding of the ancient agricultural history in the area, a deeper dive into the creative minds of local chefs, and to realize that the local variation of Mexican food is a tradition all its own — something that only belongs to Tucson.
It's a half hour before the opening of Barrio Bread on a chilly December morning and there's already a line at the door. I never thought New York's favorite pastime - waiting in line for food - would ever make its way to Tucson, but here I am, fourth in line to get one of Tucson's most in-demand products: whole-grain breads made with heirloom, locally-grown wheats. Barrio Bread and it's founder, Don Guerra, have reached a cult-like status among Tucson's food lovers, and it's not just because he makes insanely good bread. Don is also an advocate of using as much local wheat as possible because "it creates more variety and allows for more creativity," and it's paying off in a big way.
Among the wheat varieties Don uses is the historic White Sonoran Wheat, a species that is one of the oldest varieties in North America and has grown in the region for hundreds of years. Introduced by Spanish missionaries, it produces stretchable dough that is ideal for tortillas. The earliest records document the use of this wheat in the early 1700s, and it was instrumental in the development of Northern Mexican and Native American cuisines. Once almost extinct, bakers like Don and farmers at BKW Farms and Hayden Flour Mills have helped bring this wheat back to the national stage. After nearly a decade in business, Don now uses grains exclusively grown in Arizona and uses the bakery "as a test bakery to showcase different regional wheat varieties."
In collaboration with local and regional farmers, the Pascua Yaqui and Tohono O'odham Indian Tribes, and local chefs, local organization Native Seeds/SEARCH works to preserve food diversity in the southwest through seed preservation and distribution. Their team said that Chapalote Corn has been cultivated and consumed by native tribes in Tucson for almost 4,000 years. Also integral to Tucson’s regional cuisine is the Chiltepin Pepper, a tiny, fiery chili, that is native to the southwest area and said to be the "mother" chili to all other chilis in the western hemisphere and has been cultivated for over 7000 years.
It's thanks to Native Seed/SEARCH that chefs like Ryan Clark have access to an abundance of locally-specific produce that be incorporated into recipes in their restaurants. Ryan Clark is currently the Chef de Cuisine at PY Steakhouse at Casino del Sol on the Pascua Yaqui Tribe reservation and he uses many local ingredients like tepary beans and cholla buds that are not typical of steakhouse menus.
"My food tastes like Tucson...I use as many local ingredients as possible,” he says, “I want to elevate local and heritage ingredients. I have relationships with local farmers, and I change the menu at PY to reflect those relationships and the ingredients."
Chef Janos Wilder is a local icon and restauranteur and is Tucson’s biggest advocate for localized, southwestern cooking. A James Beard Award winner, Janos has made it his mission to incorporate native-to-Tucson ingredients in his menus. He dubs the main ingredients of southwest cooking as the "three sisters": corn, beans, and squash and they "have informed the dishes of the region."
When challenged on which dishes make up Southwestern cuisine, Janos spoke about the culinary iconography of the region. "Tacos, enchiladas, and rellenos are well known, but dishes and ingredients from the Sonora Region or Sea of Cortez off Baja California have made their way into Sonoran cuisine," he told me. A big part of what makes up many historic Tucson dishes involve ingredients that could be foraged from the surrounding area. "Prickly pear cactus, Sonoran Wheat, and mesquite flour are ingredients that go back thousands of years. Basically everything was native until relatively recently," explained Janos.
Like all the chefs I spoke with, Janos spoke of the importance of the ingredients historically used by the local Native American tribes. "Even though they were traditional foods, they were forgotten for awhile," he said, "But they now have a rightful place in Tucson's culinary tradition."
So what is southwestern food? First and foremost, southwestern food is about utilizing the ingredients that are native to the area. Without these ingredients, Tucson’s southwestern cuisine wouldn't have the unique elements that separate it from Mexican cuisine.
But perhaps more important than the ingredients is the incorporation of the culinary traditions that have been developed and mastered over the course of Tucson's four thousand year culinary heritage. Tucson may seem like an unlikely place to have received such a profound UNESCO honor, but with a culinary tradition as old as Tucson's, it was only a matter of time.